The Partition of India

Partition weakened the cause of secularism in India and all but destroyed it in Pakistan.

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

THE Partition of India ranks, beyond a doubt, as one of the 10 greatest tragedies in human history. It was not inevitable. India's independence was inevitable; but preservation of its unity was a prize that, in our plural society, required high statesmanship. That was in short supply. A mix of other reasons deprived us of that prize - personal hubris, miscalculation, and narrowness of outlook.

While Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League bear heavy responsibility - since they demanded and pressed for Pakistan - the Congress cannot escape blame. Least of all the hypocritical Sangh Parivar. Its chief mentor V.D. Savarkar formulated the two-nation theory in his essay Hindutva, published in 1923, 16 years before Jinnah came up with it. The Hindu Mahasabha leader Lala Lajpat Rai wrote in The Tribune of December 14, 1924:

"Under my scheme the Muslims will have four Muslim States: (1) The Pathan Province or the North-West Frontier; (2) Western Punjab (3) Sindh and (4) Eastern Bengal. If there are compact Muslim communities in any other part of India, sufficiently large to form a province, they should be similarly constituted. But it should be distinctly understood that this is not a united India. It means a clear partition of India into a Muslim India and a non-Mulsim India." This was 16 years before the League adopted the Pakistan Resolution in Lahore, on March 23, 1940 (emphasis added, throughout). Prof. Muhammad Aslam Malik claims: "The present study concentrates only on how the resolution was shaped. It deals with the subject exhaustively and explains some of the intriguing questions objectively... Nevertheless, it is not the last word on the subject." This stroke of modesty is preceded by a sustained belittling of all others who wrote on the subject. In bringing to light important archival material, the author renders high service. In proceeding to analyse them, however, he only amuses the reader when his aim, apparently, is to enlighten him. One who can confidently assert that B. Shiva Rao was "the proprietor of The Hindu", that the hill-station Matheran, which Jinnah loved, was an "island", and that Sir Chimanlal Setalvad was a Parsi, can assert anything. He draws freely on his imagination. "It can be imagined that Jinnah would have agreed to favour Sir Sikandar only when the latter agreed to support the League's Pakistan proposition, which he had vehemently opposed at the Delhi meeting of the Working Committee. It can also be visualised that, for the sake of saving his face, Sikandar should have demanded the inclusion of some of his suggestions in the 'outline'..."

The author is out to prove a thesis which some people in India also espouse - Jinnah was for Partition from the mid-1930s and the Lahore Resolution was not a bargaining counter. He thinks that his leader is belittled if the contrary is averred. One is reminded of the judge who said "this court may often be in error, but it is never in doubt."

There were four forces at work then. The historians of the Hindu Right, R.C. Majumdar and A.K. Majumdar, refer in Struggle for Freedom (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan; 1969; page 611) "to one factor which was responsible to a very large extent for the emergence of the idea of Partition of India on communal lines. This was the Hindu Mahasabha..." Recently, the veteran socialist Prem Bhasin wrote: "The ease with which a large number of Congressmen and women - small, big and bigger still - have walked into the RSS-BJP boat and sailed with it is not a matter of surprise. For, there has always been a certain affinity between the two. A large and influential section in the Congress sincerely believed even during the freedom struggle that the interests of Hindu Indians could not be sacrificed at the altar of a united Independent India. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and Lala Lajpat Rai had, for instance, actually broken away from the Congress and founded the Nationalist Party which contested elections against the Congress in the mid-twenties" (Janata; Annual Number, 1998). G.B. Pant was the architect of the Ayodhya problem.

Gandhi and Nehru opposed such elements doggedly, but they were not prepared to relent on their preference for a centralised federation. Meanwhile, the Muslim Right had begun to play with the Partition idea since Iqbal's famous address to the League session in 1931. But his group of Muslim provinces was confined to western India as a member of the Indian Union. Jinnah did not subscribe to such schemes. He was a belated convert and for tactical reasons.

Both the Congress and the League were opposed to the federal part of the Government of India, 1935. Nehru wrote to Rajendra Prasad on July 21, 1937: "During the General Election in U.P. there was not any conflict between the Congress and the Muslim League. It was the decision of both the parties to avoid conflict as much as possible and to accommodate each other." In October 1937, the League adopted as its objective complete independence and became a mass party. That that round of the Congress-League parleys for coalition failed was bad enough. Far worse, as Tej Bahadur Sapru wrote to Shiva Rao, was the behaviour of Congress Ministries. Jinnah's talks with Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose failed dismally. The Congress took a fateful step. It began advocating the establishment of a Constituent Assembly as a solution to the problem. As K.M. Panikkar pointed out in a brilliant memorandum, dated October 10, 1945, no such Assembly can succeed except on the basis of a Congress-League accord and unless "a procedure of bringing the parties together on some minimum basis of agreement is evolved before the Constituent Assembly meets."

In 1939 the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, asked Jinnah whether he had "a constructive policy", any alternative to the Assembly which Jinnah dreaded because he was certain to be outvoted there. The Viceroy invited Jinnah for talks on March 2, 1939. In these talks, Jinnah, despite his opposition to federation, presented his conditions for accepting it. He told the Viceroy that "the only form of federation which would appeal to him would be one that contained what he described as an equipoise." By this he meant, as Jinnah himself explained, "an adjustment of votes and of territorial division which would give a Hindu-Muslim balance." He added that this equipoise was to be "obtained by a certain degree of gerrymandering" - weightage of votes or seats. Various variants of the Pakistan scheme were then under active consideration within the Muslim League. The Premier of Punjab Sir Sikander Hayat Khan's scheme sought the division of India into autonomous "zones" within a federal India.

The League appointed two bodies. A foreign committee was set up in December 1938 and a constitutional subcommittee was set up in March 1939. Authors of the various schemes cooperated with both. Jinnah "told the Muslim League Council, on April 8, 1939, 'There were several schemes in the field including that of dividing the country into Muslim and Hindu India', but the (Sub) Committee was not pledged to any particular scheme."

On September 11, 1939, the Viceroy announced suspension of the federal part of the Act. Jinnah, true to form, kept his counsel to himself. For the first time he propounded the theory that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations in India. In an article in the journal Time and Tide of London (January 19, 1940) Jinnah asserted that "there are in India two nations, who both must share the governance of their common motherland". This implied clearly a pact to govern a united India. The theory was aimed at asserting a claim to equality in standing. Only two months later in Lahore on March 23, 1940 the Muslim League demanded Partition in a Resolution which did not mention the two-nation theory at all. The omission is all the more remarkable for the fact that the theory very much figured in the Resolution adopted by the League's Working Committee on February 6, 1940. Its five points provided "the outline" of the Pakistan proposal.

It was based on draft prepared by the Foreign Committee on February 1, 1940 at a meeting with the authors of schemes. The Constitutional Sub-Committee had apparently gone into hibernation. The text of the League's draft is appended to the book (Appendix C). When Jinnah met the Viceroy on February 6 he argued that "he and his friends were disposed, on the whole, to take the view that to publish in full their fundamental opinion as to the constructive steps to be taken for the future, would at this stage, from their standpoint, be inadvisable since it would needlessly expose surface (sic) to criticism". But Linlithgow pressed him to provide his alternative scheme.

THE League's historic Lahore session met in Lahore on March 21. The next day proved crucial as the Working Committee deliberated on the Pakistan resolution. The first preliminary draft, which the Subjects Committee discussed on March 23 for adoption by the session in the plenary, provided for an All-India Centre. The provisions read thus: "(e) That the regions may, in turn, delegate to a Central agency, which for the convenience may be designated the Grand Council of the United Dominions of India, and on such terms as may be agreed upon, provided that such functions shall be administered through Committee on which all regions (dominions) and interests will be duly represented and their actual administration will be entrusted to the Units. (f) That no decision of this Central Agency will be effective or operative unless it is carried by at least a two-thirds majority. (g) That in the absence of agreement with regard to the constitution, functions and scope of the Grand Council of the United Dominions of India, cited above, the regions (dominions), (9) shall have the right to refrain from or refuse to participate in the proposed Central structure... (i) That the peace-time composition of the Indian Army shall continue on the same bases as existed on the 1st April, 1937." (Appendix D).

The author need not have lost himself in reverie, as he does on the fate of this draft. He should have consulted Evolution of Pakistan edited by Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada (Royal Book Co, Karachi; 1995). He has reproduced in facsimile the draft prepared by Sir Sikandar with corrections therein by Jinnah, Malik Barkat Ali, an opponent of Sikandar, and others. There is a bracket suggesting omission of clauses (e) (f) and (g) concerning the Centre.

This explains Sikandar's speech in the Punjab Assembly on March 11, 1941. "I have no hesitation in admitting that I was responsible for drafting the original Resolution. But let me make it clear that the Resolution which I drafted was radically amended by the Working Committee, and there is a wide divergence between the Resolution I drafted and the one that was finally passed. The main difference between the two Resolutions is that the latter part of my Resolution, which related to the Centre and coordination of the activities of the various units, was eliminated." He, however, continued to remain a Leaguer.

But the Resolution as adopted contained a significant paragraph at the end. "This session further authorises the Working Comm-ittee to frame a scheme of constitution in accordance with these basic principles, providing for the assumption finally by the respective regions of all powers such as defence, external affairs, communication, customs and such other matters as may be necessary." In his masterpiece Pakistan or The Partition of India (1946), Dr. B.R. Ambedkar reproached Gandhi for not putting searching questions to Jinnah on the text when they met in 1944. "What does the word 'finally', which occurs in the last para of the Lahore Resolution, mean? Did the League contemplate a transition period in which Pakistan will not be an independent and sovereign State?" (page 411)

Ayesha Jalal holds: "By apparently repudiating the need for any centre, and keeping quiet about its shape, Jinnah calculated that when eventually the time came to discuss an all-India federation, British and Congress alike would be forced to negotiate with organised Muslim opinion, and would be ready to make substantial concessions to create or retain that centre. The Lahore resolution should therefore be seen as a bargaining counter, which had the merit of being acceptable (on the face of it) to the majority-province Muslims, and of being totally unacceptable to the Congress and in the last resort to the British also. This, in turn, provided the best insurance that the League would not be given what it now apparently was asking for, but which Jinnah in fact did not really want" (The Sole Spokesman; page 57).

Meanwhile, the Foreign Committee soldiered along to produce the "scheme of constitution" promised in the last para and submitted its Report dated December 23, 1940 to Jinnah. It said:

"The Lahore resolution of the League does not look forward to the proposed regional states assuming immediately, as they are formed, powers of defence, external affairs, communication, customs, etc. This argues that there should be a transitional stage during which these powers should be exercised by some agency common to them all...

Jinnah disowned it and even repudiated the Committee's locus standi. (For the text of the Report vide The Pakistan Issue edited by Nawab Nazir Yar Jang Bahadur; Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore; 1943; pp 73-92). It was not unanimous. A leak to the press created a sharp controversy. But these lines in the Report showed keen perception: "A common coordinating agency would be necessary...; for, under the third principle of the Resolution, it will be impossible to implement effectively the provisions of safeguards for minorities without some organic relationship subsisting between the States... an agreed formula has to be devised whereby the Muslims shall share the control at the Centre on terms of perfect equality with the non-Muslims" (page 88). In plain words, Pakistan would spell the ruin of Indian Muslims unless it had an "organic relationship" with the rest of India.

Jinnah did not wish publicly to concede a Centre. Confident of his tactical skills, not unjustifiably, he thought he would, when the chips were down, "pull it off". He miscalculated. The Congress was not interested in sharing power. His abrasive rhetoric impaired his credentials as an interlocutor. Nehru wrote in his jail diary on December 28, 1943: "Instinctively I think it is better to have Pakistan or almost nothing if only to keep Jinnah far away and not allow his muddled and arrogant head from (sic) interfering continually in India's progress" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; First Series; Vol.13; page 324). He accurately predicted: "I cannot help thinking that ultimately the Muslims of India will suffer most" (ibid; page 24).

That Jinnah's adherence to the Resolution of March 23, 1940, with its tantalising last para, was tentative emerges clearly from a consistent record of concessions on his part. Muslim leaders in U.P. like Chaudhury Khaliquzzaman and the Nawab of Chhatari expressed disquiet. On October 22, 1940, Jinnah asked Chhatari to come out "with a definite scheme of his own" and promised that he would bear that scheme in mind while making a final decision in this regard (page 200). Chhatari suggested that "We must get as many Hindus out of the Congress as possible to join hands with us". His suggestion clearly implied establishment of an all-India federation. The League was not unanimous on Pakistan even after the Lahore resolution.

Chundrigar, a Leaguer close to Jinnah, told H.V. Hodson, the Reforms Commissioner, in April 1940 that the object of the Lahore Resolution was not to create "Ulsters" but to achieve "two nations... welded into united India on the basis of equality". It was, he added, an alternative to majority rule; not a bid to destroy India's unity. Jinnah himself told Nawab Mohammed Ismail Khan, one of the few who thought for himself, in November 1941, that he could not come out with these truths "because it is likely to be misunderstood especially at present". But, "I think Mr. Hodson finally understands as to what our demand is". Hodson regarded it as a bid for a set-up on "equal terms" motivated by the fear that Muslims might be reduced to being "a Cindrella with trade union rights and a radio in the kitchen but still below stairs."

UNFORTUNATELY, the author's work does not take note of Prof. R.J. Moore's work Endgame of Empire published in 1983, in which he refers to a file in the Jinnah Papers in the Government of Pakistan's archives containing his correspondence with Cripps in 1942 on "the creation of a new Indian Union". Significantly it is still embargoed.

Jinnah emerged from the polls in 1946 with his representative status established. At his very first meeting with the British Cabinet Mission on April 4, 1946, he demanded Partition; but only to concede foreign affairs, defence and communication to the centre.

On April 25, 1946, he was offered two alternatives - the Pakistan as it came to be established in 1947 and an Indian Union superimposed on groups of Muslim provinces. Jinnah rejected the first and said he would consider the second if Congress did the same. His own proposals of May 12, 1946 envisaged, not Pakistan, but a confederation. If pressed he would have accepted a federation. He did so. He accepted the Mission's Plan.

The Mission propounded its plan on May 16, 1946 rejecting Pakistan and plumping instead for a Union confined to defence, foreign affairs and communication and based on three groups of provinces. It was, an "organic" union with enormous potential for growth.

Jinnah accepted it. Gandhi condemned grouping immediately and persisted in the opposition till the end. The Congress professed to accept the plan but so quibbled on grouping as to wreck the proposals.

THE Cabinet Mission's plan of May 16, 1946, envisaged an Indian federation based on three groups of provinces. The provinces were free to secede from the groups in which they were placed by a vote in the first general election after the scheme took effect. But they could not secede from the Union. India's unity was preserved. All they could ask for was "reconsideration of the terms of the Constitution" - a Sarkaria Commission - after 10 years and no more. It would have been open to provinces of Group A (the States which now form the Union of India) to confer on the Union voluntarily subjects beyond the minimum subjects of defence, foreign affairs and communication. Group B comprised Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the NWFP. Far from establishing a "weak" Centre, it would have yielded a strong centre for India of today in a federal union with Pakistan, in which India though had a majority, though confined to defence, foreign affairs and communication.

The plan broke down because the Congress refused to accept this grouping formula. It had 207 members in the Constituent Assembly against 73 of the League. In the crucial Group C, comprising Bengal and Assam, it had 32 members against 36 of the League, in a House of 70, with two Independents. Since the League would have had to provide a chairman to work the group, it would have been left with 35 members against 32 of the Congress. How could the League possibly have prevented Assam's secession? Yet it was this bogey which destroyed the last best chance for preserving India's unity.

As late as March 19, 1947 - less than three months before the Partition plan - the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, wrote to the Secretary of State for India, Pethick-Lawrence, that, having met Jinnah recently, Colin Reid, correspondent of The Daily Telegraph "got the impression that he might accept the Cabinet Mission's plan if the Congress accepted it in unequivocal terms". Mountbatten tried to secure that and failed. The Congress preferred India's partition to sharing power with the League in a united India.

In an interview with Jalal in 1980, a Punjab League leader, Mian Mumtaz Daultana, said that Jinnah never wanted a Pakistan which involved the Partition of India and was all in favour of the Mission's proposals. The Cabinet Mission's Plan was wrecked by the Congress as Chimanlal Setalvad rightly held.

The Congress was not consistent on the Partition. On April 2, 1942, the Congress Working Committee criticised the secessionist idea - only to add: "Nevertheless, the Committee cannot think in terms of compelling the people of any territorial unit to remain in the Indian Union against their declared and established will..." Its election manifesto of 1945 reiterated this principle, thus setting at naught the Jagat Narain Lal resolution, adopted by the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on May 2, 1942, which ruled out "liberty to any component State or territorial unit to secede."

Rajaji's formula, in March 1944, accepted plebiscite on Partition in areas "wherein the Muslim population is in absolute majority." On September 24, 1944 Gandhi himself offered Jinnah his plan for "two sovereign independent States" with a Treaty of Separation on defence, foreign affairs, etc. Thus, from 1940 onwards, the trend was unmistakably against India's unity. Both Gandhi and the Congress had accepted the principle of Partition, based on consent of the areas concerned. Time was fast running out on India's unity.

THE British government's statement on December 6, 1946 rejected the Congress interpretation of the grouping formula and ended with these words: "There has never been any prospect of success for the Constituent Assembly except upon the basis of the agreed procedure. Should a Constitution come to be framed by the Constituent Assembly in which a large section of the Indian population had not been represented, His Majesty's Government could not, of course, contemplate - as the Congress have stated they would not contemplate - forcing such a Constitution upon any unwilling parts of the country." This gave the Congress one of two choices - unqualified acceptance of the Mission's Plan or Partition. It preferred the latter. Once again, Gandhi rejected the Plan. He advised Assam not to join the Group (c) with Bengal, retire from the Constituent Assembly and frame its own constitution. "Each unit must be able to decide and act for itself" (Harijan, December 29, 1946).

Richard Symonds describes graphically the havoc that followed Partition. He was a relief worker among the refugees when the massacres took place in Punjab at Independence. Tai Yong Tan and Gyanesh Kudaisya, academics at the University of Singapore, describe the aftermath and its lasting impact on Punjab, especially on Sikhs. The opening chapter on "the celebration of independence" in both countries is, like the rest of the scholarly work, excellently documented. Their comments on Radcliffe's work are devastating. "The Radcliffe Award for the Punjab, a six-paragraph document describing the dividing line between the east and west of the province, 'wobbled from communal to economic to strategic factors', followed no natural dividing features such as rivers or mountain ranges, cut across villages, canal systems and communication lines, in the process separating communities and bisecting homes. Large populations of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs found themselves on the wrong side of the border. It was the same for Bengal, where the boundary created large pockets of minorities in East Pakistan as well as West Bengal. Its impact was tremendous, and the trauma of Partition has left an indelible mark not only on Indo-Pakistan relations but upon the lives of millions of Indians and Pakistanis."

The last chapter is on "the legacies of Partition". They write: "Since the late 1940s Muslim political leaders have realized that 'partition proved positively injurious to the Muslims of India, and on a long term basis for Muslims everywhere'. However, since the 1980s, the community has faced new challenge to its political status as political parties, raising the banner of Hindu majoritarian cultural nationalism, have questioned the very basis of India's secularism. The Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Mosque controversy and the larger, continuing mobilization for Hindutva have profound implications for the future of the community, as several scholarly studies have shown."

The Sangh Parivar's ancestors existed even in the 19th century as Joya Chatterjee's superb work Bengal Divided (1995) establishes. Partition weakened the cause of secularism in India and all but destroyed it in Pakistan.

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